By Scott Vogelsberg
November 29, 2004
When Virginia and Virginia Tech met for the Commonwealth Cup on November 27, both teams were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for the seventh time in the rivalry's history and the first time since 1999. The No. 11 Hokies and the No. 16 Cavaliers also were playing for the first time as members of the same conference, the ACC, with the Hokies clinging to first place (5-1 in the league at the time) and Virginia (5-2) challenging for a share of the top spot.
"It adds to what's at stake with the game," said Virginia coach Al Groh. "The sole purpose for being in a conference is to try to win your conference championship. Now that the game every year is going to count toward that, that just raises the stakes of the outcome of the game, and, in this particular year, because what's at stake is first place. You can't have a much bigger pot on the table than that."
Virginia Tech downed the Wahoos, 24-10, giving the Hokies a 44-37-5 lead in the series, which began in 1895. Tech didn't beat UVa until 1905, and by that time the matchup was so bitterly contested that a dispute over the eligibility of Tech's star player led to the teams not playing for 18 years.
"Each stubbornly [persisted] in pretending the other didn't exist," wrote Doug Doughty and Roland Lazenby in the book 'Hoos 'N' Hokies: The Rivalry.
Once the series resumed, it developed into an evenly matched annual game that featured two highly regarded gridiron programs just out of the national spotlight.
Heading into this year's contest, the teams had split the previous 20 games.
"The only sport in which the two programs have been consistently competitive with each other is football," said Will Stewart of Techsideline.com. "The mantle of dominance has been passed back and forth frequently, with the overall record remaining almost equal, with neither team holding a consistent edge for more than about five years at a time. That kind of parity adds fuel to a rivalry, but because of Virginia's 50-plus-year membership in the ACC, the Cavaliers have been consistently better in most other sports, making true rivalries difficult."
There seems to be three views of how the Hokies-Cavs rivalry could develop with both teams now in the conference. According to Doughty, Groh said that rivalries don't get any bigger than VT-UVa, implying that the contest has grown into one of the nation's finest. Stewart and others feel that Virginia Tech's recent admission to the ACC will feed the rivalry, allowing the Hokies to improve funding for Olympic sports and close the gap with the Wahoos in that area, helping the series gain a foothold. He cites Virginia Tech's men's soccer team beating Virginia for the first time in 22 attempts this year. Still others, including Doughty, say that perhaps the rivalry will always have only regional implications.
"It's probably underrated, but the more people mention it, it might become overrated," said Doughty, a reporter for the Roanoke Times.
What makes the rivalry so special in Virginia is the fact that the two schools are the only two Division 1-A programs in the state. While clashes such as Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Army-Navy and Oklahoma-Texas often have a bitter, angry tone to them, Virginia-Virginia Tech has been referred to as a "gentleman's rivalry."
"Younger fans buy into it with more venom, but older fans are used to sharing jobs, businesses, and even families with members of the other fan base, and that cools the rivalry somewhat," Stewart said. "I've heard that rivalries like Auburn-Alabama are nasty, and that you're either for one team or the other, but not both. But I know a number of people who support both Virginia and Virginia Tech. A lot of people in this state are graduates of William and Mary, VMI, JMU, ODU, Richmond, etc., and as such, are fans of VT and UVa -- but don't buy into the rivalry. And that helps keep it civil.
"My own family is a perfect example of why the rivalry is a civil one," he added. "There are four kids in my family: two graduated from Tech and two from Virginia. It's hard to 'hate' your own brother and sister."
Stewart also points out that Virginia actually played a large role in helping Virginia Tech get into the ACC.
"Without the stand taken by UVa president John Casteen, who steadfastly refused to approve any ACC expansion plan that didn't include VT, Virginia Tech would still be in the Big East," he said. "Hokie fans know it, and even the most ardent UVa haters appreciate what Casteen and UVa did."
This year's matchup had much on the line in terms of the conference standings. The loss dropped the Wahoos to 5-3 in the league while lifting the Hokies to 6-1 in ACC competition. While that earned Virginia Tech at least a share of the conference crown, don't expect it to give the Hokies a leg up on the recruiting trails. Elsewhere, games among the "Big Three" of Miami, Florida and Florida State often lead to the winners landing top recruits who were considering all three in-state schools. The NC State-UNC encounters often gives either the Wolfpack or Tar Heels an advantage with big-name in-state prospects. However, that doesn't appear to be the case with the Commonwealth Cup.
"Recruiting-wise, the implications are minimal," said Doughty. "Most players have their minds made up before the game, or in this year's case, already have committed."
"Who wins and who loses doesn't seem to make any difference, even if it's a trend for one team to lose to the other," Steward agreed. "Virginia Tech put together a good recruiting class in February of 1993, including signing [current Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Cornell Brown out of Lynchburg, on the heels of losing five of six to Virginia on the football field from 1987-1992. Just recently, Al Groh has signed some of Virginia's best recruiting classes ever, despite being in the middle of a four-game losing streak to VT that wasn't broken until last season. [Hokies coach] Frank Beamer says that, in the state of Virginia, there are 'Virginia Tech kids and UVa kids, without much crossover,' and for the most part he's right. The two schools only really go head-to-head for a handful of in-state recruits each year, and those recruits never name the outcome of the game as their reason for picking one school over the other."
Right now, this is a series dominated by football; consider that Virginia-Virginia Tech men's basketball games often aren't sold out. This year, both teams boasted outstanding football teams, adding more excitement than usual to the Commonwealth Cup. And while some observers are saying the rivalry could gain steam and become the ACC's best, those closest to the two programs say that may not be the case. Maybe it doesn't get the recognition it deserves for the rivalry that it is, they say, but don't make it out to be something it isn't.
"It's somewhat underrated, but it is what it is: a nice regional rivalry that doesn't have much impact on the rest of the college football world," Stewart said. "FSU-Miami is a big rivalry because they have been among the very best teams in the nation for 25 years now. Texas-Oklahoma is big because a conference championship and a trip to the BCS often rides on it. Michigan-Ohio State has determined who goes to the Rose Bowl, as has UCLA-USC.
"But Virginia-Virginia Tech hasn't mattered much to anyone other than the participants for a long time. Conference championships and trips to BCS games have never ridden on the outcome of the game, and it's rare that both teams are ranked at game time. With the game now a conference game, that will increase the visibility and importance of the rivalry, and it may not be so 'underrated' in the future, but for now, it's just not a rivalry that has a very storied history -- outside the borders of the Commonwealth."
Brought to you by: